Sunday, July 7, 2013

Port Hudson, Louisiana - July 7, 1863

Confederate gun at Port Hudson State Historic Site
150 years ago today, Major General Franklin Gardner (CS) at Port Hudson learned that Vicksburg had fallen three days earlier.

The news came not from the Union commander, Major General Nathaniel P. Banks, but from his soldiers themselves, who called across the lines to let the Confederate defenders of the Louisiana bastion know that they alone remained to defend the Mississippi River for the South. The intelligence was passed up through command to General Gardner, who penned a brief inquiry to General Banks and had it delivered through the lines under a flag of truce:

Museum Display of Heavy Artillery Shells at Port Hudson

GENERAL: Having received information from your troops that Vicksburg has been surrendered, I make this communication to ask you to give me the official assurance whether this is true or not; and, if true, I ask for a cessation of hostilities with a view to consider terms for surrendering this position. - Maj. Gen. Franklin Gardner, CSA (July 7, 1863).

It was a remarkable fact of the 19th century that commanding officers believed they could trust their enemies to be honorable and provide them with accurate information under such situations.

The siege at Port Hudson had continued longer than any other siege of the War Between the States (or Civil War). The first attempt by the Union army to storm the defenses of the Confederate bastion had ended in disaster (please see Fighting goes on at Port Hudson, Louisiana). Not only did it leave nearly 2,000 Union officers and soldiers dead, wounded or missing, the assault gave a significant boost to the morale of the surrounded Confederates. They had plenty of gunpowder and believed they could beat the Union army any time it chose to advance.

Field gun on display at Port Hudson
General Gardner and his men proved this again on June 13-14, 1863, when Banks attempted a three-pronged infantry assault on the fortifications of Port Hudson. The Confederates now had just over 3,500 men capable of fighting, while the Union army numbered more than 30,000.

The attack began at 11:15 in the morning of June 13 when more than 100 Union cannon opened fire on the earthworks and trenches of Port Hudson. After one hour of bombardment that could be heard in Baton Rouge and other towns throughout the region, General Banks demanded that Gardner surrender. The Confederate general replied that duty required him to defend his post and told Banks simply, "I decline to surrender."

Indiana Artillery firing on Port Hudson
Courtesy Library of Congress
The bombardment was resumed and continued through the night and into the pre-dawn hours of July 14, 1863. Then, at 3:30 a.m., the Union infantry began its assault. The attack was confused and poorly organized. Fog and the smoke of the bombardment created even more confusion in the dark. The result was a Confederate victory so lopsided that it was matched by few other engagements of the war. The Union army lost 1,792 men killed, wounded and missing. The Confederates lost only 47.

Even as their food and bullets ran out, the Confederates kept fighting. Reduced to eating rats and their own mules, they made up for their lack of bullets and artillery shells by salvaging the ones fired into the front of their earthworks by the Union army. They carried out quick raids against the Union infantry that was slowly digging its approach trenches toward them. When they learned that the Federals were trying to dig mines under their works to plant gunpowder in order to blow them up, the Confederates dug mines of their own and blew up the Union mines.

Looking out from Confederate lines at Port Hudson
Courtesy Library of Congress
One can not help but wonder what might have happened at Vicksburg had Gardner been in command there.

Gardner and his tiny command, in fact, held out longer than any other force under siege during the war. It was not until he learned that Vicksburg had fallen that he finally accepted the fact that there was no further need for sacrifice on the part of his men. Port Hudson was the southern defense for the stretch of the Mississippi River used to move supplies and men from west of the river to the railroad at Vicksburg. With Vicksburg in Union hands, Port Hudson no longer served a purpose for the Confederacy.

So, late in the day on July 7, 1863 - 150 years ago today, Gardner sent his inquiry through the lines asking for official confirmation from Banks that Vicksburg had surrendered. The Union commander would not reply until early the next morning, and for one more night the fighting continued to rage.

Please click here to learn about the surrender of Port Hudson.

Read more about Port Hudson battlefield at

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